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EIT perspective: How deep tech start-ups face the next normal?

In the last few months, the world was shaken entirely by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many companies, including start-ups and small businesses, have struggled with low cash reserves, while investment rounds have been falling apart with investors switching to a risk-averse mode. On the other hand, never before have so many ideas on how to fight back against the crisis been created. Paradoxically, the pandemic occurred to be fertile soil for innovations. And it can be a long-lasting trend.

How to adapt to the “next normal”?

If you are a technology-based start-up, be prepared to survive a rough period when your potential partners may be less responsive and less risk-taking due to the uncertainties the Corona pandemic brings. As a result, you may need to navigate through a longer “valley of death” – this is the time when you began operations but it has not yet generated revenue. Therefore, this is even more important for your start-up’s survival to be an active part of the local ecosystem, connected to professionals who know your business well and the environment you operate in. Adapting to the national health and safety regulations, local incubators have been supporting young companies during the pandemic. They often are in touch with the pan-European networks, such as the European Institution of Innovation and Technology (EIT), the organization I come from, which is the largest European innovation network of companies research institutions and universities across eight different domains: healthcare, food, digital, energy,

(EIT Jumpstartster bootcamp 2020)
(EIT Jumpstartster bootcamp 2020)

climate change, raw materials, urban mobility, and manufacturing. These EIT Communities are valuable professional partners for entrepreneurs, innovators and students across Europe to turn their ideas into reality.

Start-ups exhibited agility and found new funding pathways

After the first shock, the innovative start-up support industry went rapidly online. The EIT launched the Crisis Response Initiative to find innovative solutions to help tackle the ongoing coronavirus crisis, mobilizing 60 mln euro for the best ideas. Other pandemic-related projects such as online hackathons also started mushrooming, e.g. the global Hack the Crisis movement or the pan-European #EUvsVirus Hackathon. Hackathons are a good starter for generating products and services to solve a challenge. Usually, they are intensive ideation events, where innovative minds with diverse professional backgrounds (e.g. engineering, health, IT) are put in the same room for long hours. The coronavirus caused organizers to innovate the format and the online events allowed participants from the other corner of the globe to meet each other and work together. And the reward for the cutting-edge solutions came faster than normally. I think start-ups and the organizations of the innovation ecosystems passed “the flexibility” test pretty well.

Where the hackathons and ideation end, the entrepreneurial journey starts. Our programme, EIT Jumpstarter, is an award-winning pan-European competition that supports innovative project teams from the healthcare, agri-food, raw materials, energy, urban mobility and manufacturing sectors, helping them build their business model and encourage the best to create their company. Usually, we provide training across the Central-Eastern and Southern-European regions. COVID-19 disrupted our activities as well. We were just about to start our first training when the lockdown kicked in. It was still early in the year and my team faced a game-changing decision: should we postpone the training or innovate the format? It was only a few weeks before the lockdown when we had onboarded 120 teams for the 2020 edition, which were eager to start their journey in the programme, so we decided: to innovate! We designed 6 bootcamps with different size ranging from 10 to 30 participating teams and a combination of in-training and out of training mentoring.

(EIT Jumpstarter Grand Finale)
(EIT Jumpstarter Grand Finale)

We expected some rocks on the road: a big ratio of no-shows, technical difficulties, and the worst nightmare of all time – silence during the training. But guess what: the start-ups adopted quickly, they engaged in conversations and worked tirelessly with their mentors.

Our experience shows that it is not enough to deliver the usual training in front of a camera. Redesigning the programme elements, cutting the modules into shorter and more easily “digestible” parts and making it participatory with online polls or trivia games,  mixing the participants across domains in break out rooms are the key elements for bringing in the same level of participation. During the training, we emphasize the importance of validating the real-life need for their business ideas with potential customers and talk with potential partners.

What happens when it’s time to partner up?

If you are a start-up, you will pitch! Online networking and pitching events, where you present your start-up to potential partners and investors, were never as international and widely-attended as now – due to the online format. Successful start-ups share their experiences, investors from the Silicon Valley or Tel Aviv are on a look-out for the best potentials, without the hassle of travelling. These shiny events bear the promise of quick success, but keep in mind that building trust with the investors and getting funded is rarely an easy and quick process and even art in an online format. The new normal brought new models of virtual partnering and facilitating pan-regional collaborations.

I work with healthtech start-up teams in the EIT Jumpstarter programme and beyond, helping them harvest the potential of the EIT Health network, even in the online format. A rising star from last year’s edition is iLOF, a Portuguese start-up developing a solution for an inexpensive, noninvasive way of stratifying patients for Alzheimer’s clinical trials, which won the first prize of the Health category of Jumpstarter. Joana and Luis, two dedicated founders received significant funding winning the EIT Health Wildcard programme and have recently secured $1million investment. At EIT Health, we support start-ups wherever they are in their entrepreneurial journey, and help them find their first customers, test sites, and investors. It is a network that predates COVID-19 but it has proven to be agile enough to pivot in order to effectively fight the pandemic and support start-ups in adapting to the new normal and reaching the market fast.

About the author:

Dóra Marosvölgyi  is a project manager at EIT Health, the community of leading health innovators backed by the European Union, consisting of top companies, universities, research and development centres as well as hospitals and institutes. She leads EIT Jumpstarter and mentors early-stage healthcare start-ups.

Dora is also a member of STP Belgrade’s mentors pool currently involved in the ImagineIF! 2020 programme for health-tech start-ups.